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Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the question of distressed citizens, which the Government will examine as a matter of urgency. Although I am not a betting man, in the spirit of my illustrious predecessor, Robin Cook, I shall draw the attention of the House to the odds on the potential Liberal Democrat leadership election: the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) is the bookies' clear favourite to take over at 5:4 on; the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) is not generously priced at 6:4; and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is 11:2. I am sorry to tell the House that despite extensive research I was unable to find a single bookmaker offering odds on the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). In the spirit of Christmas cheer and as a lasting memorial to my predecessor, however, I am prepared to offer odds of around 100:1.
It is important that those in difficulty, particularly at this time of the year, can register their complaints, and it is true that difficulties have occurred from time to time with the arrangements that we have put in place. However, I assure the House that those arrangements were implemented ultimately to ensure that facilities work better and that the Government have not sought deliberately to make the situation worse. Our purpose is to ensure that the system is more effective and efficient.
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I do not intend to comment beyond the excellent observations made by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in answer to the question from the leader of the Liberal party. The issues in relation to so-called rendition have been satisfactorily dealt with and set out clearly.
The Government will carefully consider the outcomes of the European Council and the World Trade Organisation summit, and we will report as fully as possible to the House. Hon. Members know that a statement is customarily delivered following European Councils, and I see no reason why we should depart from that practice.
Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): Returning to council performance, will my right hon. Friend consider timetabling a debate on the accountability and responsibility of councils for leisure and recreational facilities? I have recently taken a petition of 15,000 names to No. 10 Downing street protesting against the decision by Tory-run Dudley council to close Brierley Hill swimming baths and leisure centre. The responsibility for leisure and recreational facilities is not taken fully into account in assessing council performance, because if it were, my constituents would not face this awful decision.
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to raise that important issue for the communities of Dudley and Stourbridge. The Government set great store by the provision of sporting facilities, and swimming baths provide excellent opportunities for all members of the community to participate in exercise and entertainment. I congratulate my hon. Friend and other hon. Members on the campaign against those particular proposals and wish them every success.
Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Given that British motorists pay a staggering £30 billion a year in road taxation and that Britain invests less in its roads infrastructure than the rest of Europe, will the Leader of the House consider holding an urgent debate on that subject in the new year, because constituencies such as mine suffer as result of the lack of investment, particularly in roads such as the A11, the A14 and the A47?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the important contribution made to general taxation by road users. At the same time, our significant investment in the road network is rather larger than that before 1997. We must maintain that level of investment in an environmentally sensitive and sensible way, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will take into account the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab):
Will my right hon. Friend have a careful look at the representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton), who referred to the projected settlement of those 580,000 claims? In recent days, the court has decided on a fast-track scheme produced partly by the miners group, which includes my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian, to get those payments, many of which involve small sums of money,
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to elderly miners. The solicitors agreed to forgo their payments, but in court it has been decided that £1,800 will go to the solicitor and an average of £1,400 will go to the miner, which is a scandal. The fast-track scheme was promised on the basis of not spending a great deal of moneyfor example, medical tribunals are not required. I know that the Department of Trade and Industry will appeal against that judgment, which is an almighty scandal.
Mr. Hoon: I made the position clear in the answer that I gave earlier. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) puts his point with his customary conviction and clarity. We recognise the difficulties that there have been and the costs that have built up. I am not going to comment on a particular legal decision, not least while it is subject to appeal, but I entirely accept that we need to get the balance right between the amount of compensation paid and the legal costs involved.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I hope that the Leader of the House will arrange for a debate on the Government's performance, during which it would be possible to point out that 300 constituencies have higher unemployment than they had nine months ago, and that waiting times for hearing tests in hospitals are longer in most places than they were in 1997, ranging between six months and four years.
May I raise a non-partisan point that matters to every local authority in England? Ten days ago, the rate support grant settlement was announced, but local authorities have not had the exemplification of the changes that is usually made available two or three days later. Could they have that detailed information before the House rises? The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's website says that it is "to follow", but resource directors need it now in order to plan their budgets.
Mr. Hoon: The public have an opportunity to debate the Government's performance every time that there is a general election. I am sorry to have to remind the hon. Gentleman that that debate took place earlier this year, when once again the public overwhelmingly concluded that the Government's performance was rather better than the potential performance that was on offer from the Opposition. As the hon. Gentleman is usually an extremely fair-minded Member of this House, I find it astonishing, if he will forgive me for saying so, that he refers to unemployment. This country went through an horrendous period of unemployment under the last Conservative Government, yet today there is virtually full employment. I hope that he will revert to his more fair-minded approach in future. I might say the same about his comments on waiting list statistics.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the detailed information that local authorities require. I shall ensure that the attention of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is drawn to that so that it can be made available.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab):
Can we have a debate on the fire service? The Government are
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closing down fire stations in the townships and opening new ones way out of the townships. That is what is happening in my constituency. Only last night there was a big fire in Blyth, where unfortunately someone lost their life, and the fire engine had to be called from another town because of another fire in a factory. The Government seem to be getting away with murder by not debating this issue on the Floor of the House.
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to raise what is obviously a very important constituency issue for him. However, let me assure him that decisions on the reorganisation of fire service provision, particularly the location of fire tenders, are taken in the interests of providing the best and most efficient service. That will not change. Indeed, the Government are investing a significant amount of money in new equipment for the fire service. It is important that that equipment is in the right place to provide maximum help to most citizens.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that he would look to see how much more information could be put into the public domain concerning the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions to collapse the case of the Stormont spy ring. Will the Leader of the House indicate when we might have a statement, and will he ensure that it is made in this House at the Dispatch Box so that Members can ask questions?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in raising this issue. He raised it with me last week, he raised it with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday, and he raises it again today. The message has not really changed. This is a matter for an independent prosecuting authority. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister indicated that he will look hard to see what further information can be made available. That will take a little time, but I shall ensure that the information is made available to the House at an appropriate stage.
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